Talk to anyone associated with Minnesota United FC and these four words are bound to come out of his or her mouth within the first minute of conversation: experience, build, core, improvement.
It’s basically the new harder, better, faster, stronger. Daft Punk just has to record the song.
After a hurried and harried first season that ended with a 19th-place finish out of 22 teams, United seems to have aligned its sporting and business sides under the unified vision of being better in 2018, an improvement stemming from a year’s experience that will help the club build on its core of players and fans. But with the fresh thrill of being a new Major League Soccer team now in the past, and the revitalized interest to come when Allianz Field opens in 2019, this second campaign could easily see a drop-off both on and off the pitch in terms of performance and attention.
The club, though, has done a lot of work to avoid that, starting with the hiring of former Timberwolves and Lynx President Chris Wright as CEO this past fall.
“The sophomore slump is real, but it’s really in sort of a different sort of a way,” Wright said. “A transition year. It’s the excitement from the first year to the excitement of Allianz Field. The question is, how do you maintain the excitement?”
Well, on the business side, a few things. Wright had basically a clean slate and free reign to start, as United dedicated much of its first year to putting out fires as they arose rather than planning strategically for the future (hopping up to the majors in six months’ time will do that to a club).
He started by crafting a value statement: “We’re the global game, and through the global game, we’re going to inspire and unite our community.” Then he brought everyone from senior leadership to the coaching staff to the corporate sponsors on board.
From that, the club drafted a two-year plan that dictates, month by month, where the organization should be en route to its ultimate goal next season: a sellout of all 17 home games at Allianz Field.
So far, United seems to be on track.
Wright said season tickets have grown by more than 2,000 this offseason and are nearing the 14,000 to 15,000 cap for the 20,000-seat stadium. The club started its “scarves up, Minnesota” branding campaign that leans into the idea that the soccer atmosphere is unique and different from any of the other many sporting events in the market.
And maybe most importantly, the club signed a new five-state broadcast deal, including streaming, with FSN that Wright believes will triple or quadruple TV ratings and put the Loons on par with the other big franchises in the Twin Cities.
“This staff is working so hard right now, ungodly amount of hours, to get all of what we need to get put in place and accomplished ready for Allianz Field, but at the same time, focus on year two, celebrate year two, make sure that this isn’t sort of the forgotten season,” Wright said. “This is the real thing. We’ve got to go out and compete every single day in front of lower-bowl sellout crowds in TCF Bank Stadium. That is the goal for this year.”
Wright said he’s worked with sporting director Manny Lagos and coach Adrian Heath to “methodically and deliberately” build the team into a competitor. But he qualified that they are in the beginning part of the process to building toward challenging for an MLS Cup.
“I’m pleased with where we were to what we are, but we have a long, long way to go. We know that,” Heath said. “For us to be competitive week in, week out against the top five or six teams of each conference, we’re going to have to be our best. And that’s a work in progress because of our situation, because of the fact that we’ve had to pay for the expansion, because we’ve had to build a complete training facility, we’re building a self-financed stadium.
“We haven’t had the opportunity to go out and spend $30 million on players, and I’m aware of that.”
Many MLS clubs spent this offseason paying big money for talented players, such as Atlanta United’s record-breaking signing of a reported $15 million for Ezequiel Barco. The Loons have been rather modest in their acquisitions, with pretty much only 35-year-old right back Tyrone Mears, who the Loons took in the re-entry draft, as an immediate starter.
That’s not to say United didn’t try. United had several “near misses,” according to Wright, one of those being Colombian midfielder Nicolas Benedetti, for whom the Loons reportedly offered about $6 million. Heath said the best his staff can do right now is be prepared when the transfer windows open and try to make smart but economical moves.
“You don’t go from nothing to the finished article in 12 months. It’s impossible,” Heath said. “As much as supporters at times get a little bit frustrated — and I get that, they see teams buying Barco for [$15 million] — but hey, we aren’t in that position in this moment in time. That is the harsh realities. But I can’t complain as a manager because I see the big picture and what the club is trying to build.”
So while most of United’s starting lineup when the season opens 9:30 p.m. Saturday at San Jose will look pretty familiar to fans of last year’s team, the Loons have added some young players for the future and some better-quality depth.
“We have good players in this team, but … if you don’t have exceptional players that can change games, then everything has to be on the team,” Mears said. “One thing that this team does have is great spirit. You need that in any successful team, and we’ve got that in abundance in the team. It’s something that the coaching staff want because they know there’s going to be a lot of hard times during the season when things don’t go right and that certainly helps when everybody sticks together.”
Leading scorer Christian Ramirez said no one on the team is taking this second season in MLS lightly. In fact, he has his eyes on being one of four players to potentially have played for United at the National Sports Center in the North American Soccer League days, TCF Bank Stadium and Allianz Field.
“Each guy is looking toward that third year as this year to showcase themselves to make that next jump,” Ramirez said. “It’s another year to prove ourselves to the staff, to the front office, that we’re an integral part of this process and that we belong in that next phase. We can’t have a drop-off. If we have a drop-off, very few guys, if any, will be around for that stadium.”